What is Ikken?
Kancho Royama practicing Tanto, one posture of Ikken’s kihon.
Ikken is a parallel, Chinese martial art heavily stressed by Kancho Royama and other instructors during Kyokushin-kan seminars. It is the name currently used for an martial art Sosai Mas Oyama practiced, Taikiken, and incorporated into his synthesis of Kyokushin. At its core is the training of Ki (or Chi in Chinese) energy. Westerners who’ve never seen Ikken might think it similar to Tai Chi, although it is very self-defense oriented (one might say fight-oriented) in that the goal is to learn destructive (and therefore defensive) physical power that transcends the normal sources that we tend to think of when looking for power (i.e. our muscular-skeletal system).
(Kyokushin-kan strives to define itself as an organization with the tools to ADVANCE Kyokushin through a specific technical vision which includes a concentrated understanding of kata, bunkai, and tournament kumite, along with the (re) introduction to Kyokushin of Chi energy training (through Ikken), Bukijutsu (weapons training), head/face-punch kumite, a heightened standard for manner, a stricter standard for promotion, and a refined set of tournament rules. These technical articles were written with the intent to inform Kyokushin-kan’s members of all that is meant to be gained.)
Kancho Royama points out that, in a sense, real karate training doesn’t even begin until the age of 50. Prior to that time, we have such easy command of our body that practitioners tend to look there for power, because that’s where power is easy to find. As we get older, however, and begin to lose the ease with which we tap into muscle/bone sources of strength, we have no choice but to begin to look for alternate sources. It’s then, Kancho points out, that the serious practitioner begins to become aware of Ki energy, and how it can be used to supplement muscular power. Of course we can practice Ikken as young people, and thus become aware of our Ki energy prior to the age of 50, and Kancho points out that the young person who begins training in Ikken early will be far more powerful. All of Kancho’s young uchi deshi, including greats such as Okazaki Shihan and Koyama Shihan, practiced Ikken everyday.
Kancho Royama with his teacher Sensei Kenichi Sawai, who also taught Mas Oyama.
At a glance, one might think that Kancho Royama is intoducing Ikken training to Kyokushin (and therefore altering Kyokushin) but the more accurate assessment is that Ikken was one of the arts assimilated into Kyokushin by Mas Oyama in the very beginning. It was part of the original Kyokushin synthesis. It has always been a part of Kyokushin, and, if anything, its practice was lost among Kyokushin karateka during the years that Kyokushin’s popularity boomed. Kancho Royama had extensive practice with Ikken Master Sawai Kenichi who also taught Mas Oyama, and Sawai Sensei’s successor, Sun Li Sensei, teaches at each of our Kyokushin-kan International Instructors’ Seminars. We all know that our vice-chairman Fuku-Kancho Hiroshige became renowned in Japan for making champions. Midori, Yamaki, Kazumi . . . all were Hiroshige Shihan’s world-champion students and they all practiced Ikken. Kancho Royama practiced Ikken extensively before his first All-Japan Tournament win.
Iwata Shibucho, a former uchi deshi of Kancho Royama, practicing Ikken at the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan in 2003 the morning before his first-place win in an Asian Open tournament.
An Introduction to Basic Ikken Practice: Tanto
In karate we can divide our training into basic parts: kihon, iddo, kata, bunkai, kumite, etc., and the most basic training is kihon (which means “basics”). Analogously, the most basic training of Ikken is called Tanto, which is very similar, in appearance, to ritsuzen (standing zen meditation).
When a person practices zazen (seated meditation), he/she is sitting, but what is the purpose, what are they doing while they sit? The best answer is that the answer will come to the practitioner as he/she practices over time. In other words, “just do it, and you’ll start to see what it’s about.” Likewise, consider Shanchin (kata). We’re told that two kata, naifanchin shodan and sanchin, are the two kata most integrally connected to kumite. Why? What is it about Sanchin that’s so important to becoming a strong fighter? The answer is similar to the above answer regarding zazen. Just do it, and you’ll start to see what it’s about through practice.
Sensei Sun Li, successor to Ikken Master Sawai Kenichi, teaches each year at Kyokushin-kan Internatinal Instructor’s Seminars.
Of course, for the beginner, a little guidance, a hint as to what the answer is, never hurts. In the case of zazen that hint might be that the practitioner “is seeking mindlessness,” and in the case of sanchin that hint might be that the practitioner “is seeking to learn full body coordination; the full-body coordination that connects the body’s weapons (fists) to the planet (stance) through the critical connecting point (tanden).” In both of these cases, it’s easy to SAY what the answer is, but it’s much harder to actually find it, since the answer can really only be found through dedicated training.
It’s the same for Ikken, and it’s the same for Ikken’s most basic exercise, Tanto. The first answer for the novice, is just to say, “just do it. Practice the exercise like I tell you, and you’ll start to understand, over time, what it’s about.” To help the reader understand Ikken, let’s first consider the basic practice method for Tanto, then let’s talk about “what you’re supposed to do” while you’re standing there holding a posture for 5, 10, 20, or even 60 minutes of training, and then, finally, we will provide the “hint” alluded to above regarding what it’s all about.
Students practicing Tanto, a basic standing form of Ikken.
Integral both to understanding the “position” of tanto, and to answering the question “what am I to do (during tanto)?” is visualization. In each case there is an image, or a collection of images that the practitioner must keep in mind. The image refines the posture, and leads us toward that answer. In several of the photographs on this page the students are are standing in two different Tanto positions that are virtually the same except for the position of their arms. Let’s look at the picture just above, first, in which the students have their arms down near their sides. The points to keep in mind are:
- Stand completely straight and look completely straight ahead at the horizon (your feet should be parallel, shoulder width apart).
- Imagine that there’s a cord attached to the top-back of your skull, pulling your spine completely straight, upwards towards the sky.
- Lower your stance by just 2 or 3 centimeters by bending your knees only, never bend your spine or your neck (both 2, above, and 3, here, should be applied simultaneously, i.e. spine pulled upwards, stance lowered by bending the knees slightly towards a squat).
- If your weight is to rock anywhere towards the front or back of your feet, make sure it’s front, i.e. don’t stand on your heels (really your weight should be about centered to slightly forward towards the toe-end of your feet).
- With your arms straight down at your sides (and touching your sides, finger tips pointing down), slide you palms up your thighs to your hips (your elbows will bend away from your sides), then move your palms (still facing your hips) outward to about a fist’s width on either side of your hips as in the picture.
- Point all 10 finger-tips downward, allow your eyes to rest half-way closed (still looking towards the horizon), RELAX your body completely, especially your arms, shoulders, and midsection (do not tense your abdominal muscles).
- Maintain the following image: you are standing on a square plank of wood that’s not bigger than your stance, and that plank of wood is floating on the surface of a still lake. If you don’t keep perfect balance (exactly 50% of your body weight on each parallel foot), that plank will shoot out from under you and you will fall into the water. Imagine that there are 10-foot-long needles protruding from your ten finger tips, and those ten needles are stuck straight down into the soil at the bottom of the lake, thus aiding in your quest for balance. Thus there are two opposing forces: 1. your spine pulled UP to straight by your skull, and your stance lowered (DOWN) with just the legs and 2. your weight pressing DOWN into an imaginary plank on the surface of a lake, while, with your arms, you are able to pull UP through your fingertips and those imaginary spikes going down into the soil in order to keep perfect balance. For now, just consider that this image is meant to be maintained throughout the training, and there are additional levels to the image that will deepen the training once you’re comfortable with this one.
- Relax everything while holding this posture. Slow your breathing and concentrate on your low belly when you breathe. Parts of your body will start to burn with the effort of holding the position for a long time. Your shoulders, and your thighs first of all. Your hands will want to curl inwards but keep them pointed straight down, and slightly separated. The reason why your body starts to burn is because you are engaging your muscles (without rest) to hold the position. Relax those muscles; stop using them. Make your body “float” on your central nervous system. Where your muscles start to burn, relax those muscles. Hold the position without the use of your muscles.
That’s the posture. But what is it that you’re supposed to “do” while you’re holding that posture for 5, 10, 20 or even 60 minutes? And what’s the “hint,” that will help you understand the purpose of the training?
Kancho Royama teaching Tanto to Kyokushin-kan visitors to Japan.
The answer: The purpose of the training is to train your understanding, awareness, and utilization of your Ki energy (remember from a Western standpoint, we can say “central nervous system,” although Kancho would tell you that there’s more to Ki than just one’s central nervous system). The most basic way that we become aware of our Ki energy, and learn to use it, is by performing some kind of work, while denying our muscles permission to help us in performing that work. The zen master might enjoy saying it’s “doing work while not doing any work.” While holding this basic position your body must carry a load; if you just relax completely you would collapse to the floor. However by fatiguing the muscles holding the position, and thus becoming aware of what work those muscles are doing, and then by trying to deny those muscles “permission” to help out in achieving the task, we find that we can “float” the weight of our posture on our Ki energy, on our central nervous system. We find that our muscles stop burning because we’re no longer depending on them as heavily, and eventually, when we get really good at it, we find that we don’t have to use our muscles at all, and that we can use Ki to perform work that we’re used to our body doing alone.
One might say, therefore, that the entire purpose of Ikken is to train ones use of Ki. The most basic exercise is this one, Tanto, in which we can become aware that there is a real force in our body that the Chinese and Japanese refer to as Ki or Chi, and that can be utilized during karate
The purpose of Ikken training is to harness one’s Ki energy, and learn how to apply it in kumite. It is not so important if the beginner doesn’t quite get it yet in terms of what it’s all about. Like zazen, or sanchin kata for that matter, if you practice it, its greater meaning will reveal itself to you over time. Meanwhile, the mere physical aspects of the training will strengthen your body and improve balance. Therefore, it can be an exercise for the white belt, as well as for the black belt. For one it might be more about balance and strength; for the other it might be more about Ki.
Sensei Sun Li teaching Tanto at a recent International Instructors’s Seminar in Japan.